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Falcons QB Taylor Heinicke to start vs. Vikings, Desmond Ridder to serve as backup

There's a new starter under center in Atlanta, at least for the time being. 

Taylor Heinicke will be the Falcons' starting quarterback in Week 9 against the Minnesota Vikings and Desmond Ridder will serve as the backup, head coach Arthur Smith announced Wednesday.

"Just for this week, just with all the variables, just kind of considering everything in the last 72 hours and what we feel is best for this week against Minnesota, Taylor will play this week," Smith told reporters on Wednesday.

Signed this offseason to back up Ridder in his second season, Heinicke is the fourth starting quarterback in Smith's two-plus seasons helming the Falcons.

Smith has been reticent to move on from Ridder despite the 24-year-old's mounting turnover problems and failure to kick-start an offense ranked 28th in points scored. The transition to Heinicke began on Sunday when he took over in the second half of a loss to the Tennessee Titans. Ridder was evaluated for a concussion and cleared, but never returned to the game. After the game, Smith clarified that Ridder staying on the sidelines was not a performance-based decision. Matters were complicated and delayed further on Monday when Smith said he'd wait until Wednesday to name a starter.

Wednesday's come and Smith has finally decided to give Heinicke the reins. The third-year head coach was similarly hesitant to give Ridder the starting role last season despite the travails of Marcus Mariota.

It's hardly commonplace for a first-place team to make a quarterback change midway through the season, but such is the case for a Falcons squad (4-4) sputtering on offense and yet still the frontrunner in a largely woeful NFC South.

Ridder is averaging 212.6 yards per game with six touchdowns to six interceptions. He hasn't thrown a touchdown since Week 6 -- a two-touchdown outing against the Washington Commanders that's his only multi-TD game of the year. Having offered up a snapshot of promise at the tail end of his 2022 rookie season, Ridder was anointed the Falcons' 2023 starter. He was viewed as a protect with potential upside who had a safe floor thanks to his care with the football. Said ball security has undertaken a freefall, though. Over the past six weeks, Ridder has issued 12 giveaways, which leads the NFL for the season, and he's failed to ignite an offense with first-rounders at running back (Bijan Robinson), wide receiver (Drake London) and tight end (Kyle Pitts).

This is a familiar situation for Heinicke, who took over for the injured Alex Smith, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Carson Wentz in each of the previous three seasons with the Washington Commanders, and supplanted a healthy Wentz last year, also.

The 30-year-old has a knack for kindling an offense in a pinch, but his uneven play has prevented him from becoming a franchise QB. In six seasons with the Houston Texans, Carolina Panthers, Commanders and Falcons, Heinicke has gone 12-12-1 as a starter and played in 34 games, completing 63.7% of his passes for 5,920 yards, 35 touchdowns and 24 interceptions.

He'll get his first start as a Falcon on Sunday against the Vikings, who are moving on from starter Kirk Cousins due to a season-ending Achilles tear.  The two 4-4 squads will square off with Heinicke likely facing rookie Jaren Hall in a matchup nobody was expecting heading into the season.

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